Preview of Sunday’s Punchestown & Cheltenham horse racing

The Hobbit is about to hit cinema screens but the feature showing at Punchestown today is the return of the king. Hurricane Fly sets out on the road to regain his champion hurdle crown in the Grade One Dobbins and Madigans @ Punchestown Hurdle this afternoon.


The king lost his title to Rock On Ruby at Cheltenham last March but returned to Punchestown and a measure of redemption by retaining the Rabobank Irish Champion Hurdle title at the festival in April.


Willie Mullins reports that Ireland’s best hurdler had a much better preseason this year compared with last year’s interrupted preparation. However the champion trainer’s horses are under something of a cloud with some horses running to form and others disappointing. There is no suggestion that anything is amiss with the former champion but his yard’s indifferent form by their standards is a slight concern.


Hurricane Fly’s only defeat on Irish soil came in this race three years ago when old adversary Solwhit beat him into third place. The trio trying to inflict a second loss on Hurricane Fly are good horses but not in the same league as the son of Montjeu when he’s on song. The forecast is for a hurricane to hit Punchestown around this afternoon.


There are two fascinating Grade Two novice chases on the supporting card and although the Craddockstown Novice Chase has attracted just four runners it’s a cracking contest.


Mouse Morris’ Baily Green has been a revelation this season rattling off seven wins on the bounce, the last three in Graded contests. However he faces his stiffest opposition to date this afternoon and has to give weight away to his three rivals.


Willie Mullins’ Twinlight has also put together a winning run, and is looking for his hat trick today. He beat Argocat in a grade three chase at Galway last month and it was an impressive performance to beat a decent field having made a hash of the second last. He has a considerable amount of ability and is a threat.


Jessica Harrington saddles two  – Oscars Well and Jenari – and both made winning debuts over fences last month. Oscars Well was by far the best rated of these over hurdles. He won two grade one novice hurdles and looked all over the winner in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the 2011 Festival before a terrible blunder at the last put paid to his chances.


Last year was a disappointment over hurdles but he began his chasing career with a facile victory here on Halloween. The trip and distance were not ideal but he coped with aplomb and shaped with promise for the future. Oscars Well should make a Grade One chaser and has the class to win this.


The Racing Post Hurdle, formerly known as the Greatwood Hurdle, usually has an impact on the Champion Hurdle betting and winners of this hugely competitive early season handicap hurdle have a good record when they return to the track for the big one in March.


It’s a race that’s usually won by a young hurdler on the way up through the ranks and the recent history of the race bears this out. Half of the last 10 winners were five year olds, with the eight year old Rooster Booster the oldest winner in the last decade at a not quite pensionable eight.


Winners tend to be prominent in the betting with only two victorious horses returned at bigger than 10/1 since 2002. Weight is not an issue in this race either and top weights have a decent record over the same period of time.


Going on the statistics over the last few years I’ve narrowed it down to Darlan, Cash and Go and Domination. Darlan has the best form in the field. Nicky Henderson’s five year old was second to Cinders And Ashes in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival in March before going on to win the Top Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree.


His performances last year marked him out as a future Champion Hurdle horse. He has failed to win just once in six completed starts and represents the powerful combination of Nicky Henderson, AP McCoy and JP McManus. He has been burdened with top weight of 11-12 but that should not be a problem for him, especially if he is to prove his championship credentials. At 9-4 favourite, he is a little short in the betting for me although he is a very likely winner.


Henderson also has Cash And Go in the race. Formerly trained in Tipperary by Edward O’Grady, today is his first start for his new connections. Barry Geraghty takes the ride and he was on board when Cash And Go won his maiden hurdle at Wexford a year ago. He’s a half brother to high class hurdler Catch Me and is already a Grade One winner, having been victorious in the Future Champions’ Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown last Christmas. He does have a long lay off to overcome as he hasn’t been seen since finishing fifth to Benefficient at Leopardstown in February which is a slight concern.


The Charles Byrnes trained Domination travels over from Tralee and he is the one for me. The five year old son of Motivator has been mainly campaigned on the flat this summer. His only run over hurdles this year was on 1 September when he got within a nose of the prolifice Baily Green, who goes for his seventh successive win in a Grade Two chase at Punchestown this afternoon. He also has a couple of good bits of flat form, finishing second behind runaway Irish Cambridgeshire wiiner Voluese de Couers at Galway at the end of July. On his last start he won the Betfred Cesarewitch Trial at Newmarket in late September.


His trainer is adept at preparing big handicap winners and at around the 9-1 mark he fits the bill for me.



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